Status and prospect of Mithun farming in NE India

Vivek Joshi, Kamni Paia Biam, JK Chamuah, R Vikram and MH Khan
Mithun is mainly reared for meat purpose. It is often slaughtered for high quality organic meat during marriage ceremonies, religious festivals, elections and community feasts. Therefore, mithun is popularly known as ‘Ceremonial Cattle’. Mithun is regarded as a last resort of money and sold by poor farmers at the time of adversity to fulfill money requirement for children’s education and health emergencies. It is also used for barter trade purpose apart from being used for paying fine, ransom and price of bride by groom’s family.
From ancient times, it is believed that mithun is related to indigenous tribal culture and in some folklores, mithun is regarded as descendant of sun. Mithun plays an important role in social, economic and cultural life of tribal population. Mithun ownership is still considered a symbol of prestige and prosperity in northeast India.
Mithun is very shy in nature and a medium to large sized ruminant species which in external appearance resembles domestic cattle and buffalo. The visual appearance of mithun is similar to wild gaur (also called Indian bison) except for the body shape and horns. Mithun is smaller in size than gaur while its horns are more or less straight in comparison to curved horns of gaur.
In general, mithun is characterized by a big head, heavy body and strong legs. The forehead is usually broad and concave. Mithun is found in various body colors but black is the most abundant color. The jet-black body with ash colored forehead and white stockings in all the legs is a characteristic feature of typical mithun. However, white stockings develop and become visible in mithun calves only after four months of age.
The new born calves are golden yellow andbrown in color, however, as the age advances, adults become jet black to dark brown colored. The hump is absent in mithun and also, its tail and legs are smaller in comparison to domestic cattle. The ears are broad and dewlap is large sized in mithun. The average body weight of adult mithun aged 4-5 years is usually 400- 500 kg. The maximum life span of mithun in India is recorded to be 15 years. The healthy and sexually mature mithun female periodically undergoes an estrus cycle of 19-24 days until it gets pregnant.
During estrus, mithun female comes into heat but it does not exhibit clear signs of heat. Therefore, it is known as ‘Silent Heat’ and quite difficult to identify a mithun female in heat based on visual signs. Mithun does not prefer a definite season for breeding and a healthy adult mithun can breed throughout the year. The average age of puberty is 18-24 months and the breeding age of mithun bulls is 3-4 years. The gestation length is 270- 290 days and normally, it gives birth to one calf at a time. The newbornmithun calf often weighs 18-25 kg.
Diseases of mithun
Mithun is quite sturdy with an extraordinary ability to withstand various pathogens and diseases. Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is a common disease in mithun. It is a highly contagious and fatal viral disease. The infected mithun develops signs of fever followed by swelling of limbs, wounds in feet, excessive salivation, ulcers in tongue, gums and lips, limping, abortion and high mortality rate.
 To date, no treatment is available for FMD, thus, it is advisable to vaccinate newborn calves at 4 months of age and repeat it every 6 months before monsoon season. Other major diseases of mithun include hemorrhagicsepticemia (HS), black quarter (BQ), tick and leech infestation, nematodiasis, Johne’s disease (JD), pneumonia, anthrax, coccidiosis, etc.
Economic potential of mithun farming
To date, potential of mithun to produce meat, milk and leather is not fully explored and it remains as an underutilized animal in northeast India. It is a need of the hour to use mithun more for commercial than cultural purposes. Mithun farming has now become an important source of income. There exists a great scope to promote mithun farming as a valuable source of organic meat and milk. Also, mithun possesses immense potential for use as draught purpose animal in hilly tracts.
Mithun is an efficient converter of forest biomass into superior quality meat. The meat of mithun is softer and better than other available sources of meat. Being low in fat, mithun meat is good for human health. There is a very high demand and preference of mithun meat among indigenous tribes. It is alwaysadvisable to slaughter mithun at the age of 4-5 years in order to get the highest amount of meat. Generally, the dressing percentage in mithun is 58-62%.
At present, consumption of mithun milk is unacceptable among tribal people and regarded as a taboo. Mithun can produce 1-1.5 kg day-1 of milk. Mithun milk is thicker and more nutritious than milk of other domestic animals. It is rich in fat (8-13%), solidsnot-fat (18-24%) and protein (5-7%). Based on energy value, 1 kg of mithun milk is equal to 2 kg of cow milk. High lactoferrin, an antimicrobial compound in mithun milk, is associated with its medicinal property. Moreover, with technological intervention, mithun milk can be exploited to produce superior quality dairy products like cheese, curd, ghee, rasgulla, etc. due to its high protein content.
Therefore, there is a need and extensive scope to promote mithun as a milch animal in northeast India.
(To be contd)